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Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?

Tim Davis/Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York
Couch in Car, Vassar College, 2010; photograph by Tim Davis from Vassar’s sesquicentennial exhibition ‘150 Years Later: New Photography by Tina Barney, Tim Davis, Katherine Newbegin,’ at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, New York, through March 27, 2011

The rhetoric of crisis seems to have become endemic to writing about the American university. Some twenty-five years ago, Harvard Dean Henry Rosovsky declared American universities to be “the world’s best.” There was a good deal of dissent from this judgment during the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and continuing with more juvenile attacks such as Charles Sykes’s Profscam (1988) and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990). But these were salvos in a culture war about the definition and mission of the university, and political dissents from what was seen as a predominantly leftist intellectual and artistic elite.

The new crisis accuses the American university of failing to educate (variously, failing to train the mind and to prepare for the workplace), of losing its place in international competition, of being an institution top-heavy with administrators and pandering to a faculty that does very little, as well as to students who care more about expensive cars and state-of-the-art fitness rooms than about Socrates. Above all, the university has become unjustifiably expensive, inaccessible, and unaccountable. The subtitle given by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus to Higher Education? sums it up: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It.

Debating education has always been an American pastime, and choosing the “best colleges” a lucrative business, as U.S. News and World Report has well understood. The debate has long been studded with reformist notions, utopian or practical, but it was sustained by the belief that American universities were something of high quality—indeed, something precious—that were worth the attention they got, and worth striving to enter.

The universities in turn have on the whole made efforts to make themselves far more democratic than they once were (the changes in their demographics since the 1960s are, when you think about it, quite remarkable), to open their gates to the disadvantaged of American society more fully than many other sectors of society, and to try to make their benefits available to those who can’t pay for them. The wealthiest among them claim to adhere to a “need-blind” admissions policy—that is, to admit the freshman class without looking at its scholarship requests, then provide the financial aid each student needs. To be sure, that policy can be pursued only by a handful of colleges, and there is evidence that the sticker price is now so high that many who might get adequate financial aid don’t even try for admission. Moreover, in the competition among universities for the best and the brightest, there has been something of a mad escalation in facilities and amenities, on the assumption that they must match the spas and fitness centers that the wealthiest of their students grew up with. More telling, I think, is what has happened to the leading public universities, which have been busy raising tuitions at a faster rate than ever before to compensate for the lack of support from the states whose pride and joy they purportedly are.

If crisis there is, it surely has something to do with the larger crisis in American society: the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, the retreat from any commitment to economic fairness, the sense that the system is rigged to benefit a tarnished elite that no longer justifies its existence. The affluence gap between Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, plus a few others, and the rest of the universities has indeed increased, and permits a degree of luxury to both students and faculty in those institutions that are the envy of the rest. (Faculty at the University of California, Berkeley—generally considered the greatest public university in the world—had their telephones removed from their offices last year, in a nicely symbolic gesture of their helplessness under the budget knife.)

Meanwhile, many students who would previously have gone to a four-year college have to be content with a two-year community college, where faculty are typically underpaid and overworked. Even at many relatively more prosperous institutions, full-time tenured faculty—expensive and immovable—are being replaced by various temps and adjuncts. As in the rest of corporate America—and universities are increasingly corporate in their management style—a hungry and mobile labor force is considered desirable. There is in fact some evidence that increased access to higher education has simply perpetuated or even exacerbated social stratification since the educational “system” is itself so highly tiered, and expansion tends to come in lower tiers rather than the elites.1 “Going to college” can mean very different things in different kinds of institutions.

The result, I think, is a fair measure of bafflement and ressentiment, resulting in a kind of indiscriminate flailing about in criticism of the university, some of it justified, much of it misdirected, and some pernicious. There’s a demand that the entire enterprise justify itself through “outcomes,” as tested, for instance, in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test promoted by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift. I suspect that some of the impetus for outcomes testing derives from the report of the commission appointed by George W. Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, released in 2006 under the title A Test of Leadership.2 There we read, for instance, that we face

a lack of clear, reliable information about the cost and quality of postsecondary institutions, along with a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students. The result is that students, parents, and policymakers are often left scratching their heads over the answers to basic questions, from the true cost of private colleges (where most students don’t pay the official sticker price) to which institutions do a better job than others not only of graduating students but of teaching them what they need to learn.

Hence the recommendation of the CLA, as a kind of Consumer Reports for the head-scratchers.

More needs to be said about the CLA, but let me stick for now with the crisis rhetoric. The Spellings Commission report continues:

History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to—or even to notice—changes in the world around them, from railroads to steel manufacturers. Without serious self-examination and reform, institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap, seeing their market share substantially reduced and their services increasingly characterized by obsolescence.
Already, troubling signs are abundant. Where once the United States led the world in educational attainment, recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicate that our nation is now ranked 12th among major industrialized countries in higher education attainment. Another half dozen countries are close on our heels. And these global pressures come at a time when data from the US Department of Labor indicate that postsecondary education will be ever more important for workers hoping to fill the fastest-growing jobs in our new economy.

Are these scare tactics legitimate? The comparison of higher education to an “industry” (with implications that it is beginning to look like a rust belt), then the claims that eleven other countries are doing better in “higher education attainment” and that we are not preparing students for jobs in the “new economy,” capture a number of the contradictions I find in some of the other crisis books under review.

On the one hand, all the critics of the American university claim to be partisans of the liberal arts, to want students to study philosophy and literature, even the arts, and to learn “critical thinking” (the currently accepted mantra—not a bad one). On the other hand, the tests proposed always seem to have to do with job preparation—even as the critics in the same breath deplore “vocationalism” and point to the impoverished education that many majors in business or accounting receive. And one would like to know whether the level of higher education attainment measured by the OECD is in fact liberal education or simply technocratic training at a high level (a point raised by Martha Nussbaum in Not for Profit, the welcome outlier among the books under review).

Hacker and Dreifus, in their self-consciously iconoclastic (and sometimes cranky) book, identify a “Golden Dozen” colleges considered the most desirable: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams. They find it hard to obtain “solid information” to gauge the success of Golden Dozen graduates. So they turn to Who’s Who in America, to track one class (‘73) from Princeton—to find that national eminence has been achieved by a disappointing percentage of them. From this and some other equally shaky research, they conclude: “We found that most Dozen graduates do not create distinctive lives and careers—at least not to the extent one would expect from colleges that claim to find and nurture unusual talent.” The exercise is trivial—to judge the successful life requires far greater depth of knowledge—and its conclusions lightweight.

After concluding that colleges and universities have “lost track of their basic mission,” Hacker and Dreifus in their final chapter list a jumble of recommendations, some good, some terrible. They want universities to divest themselves of proliferating administrative offices (agreed, but some of these have arisen in response to mandates such as affirmative action), to abolish varsity athletics (good again, but even William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who has studied this subject more deeply than anyone I know of, has given up on that reasonable but impossible task3), end the exploitation of adjuncts (I agree wholeheartedly), reduce the number of senior professors, and get rid of tenure. In the place of the Golden Dozen, they recommend their own Top Ten, including Notre Dame, the University of Mississippi, Raritan Valley Community College, Arizona State University, and others—worthy institutions all, though unlikely to replace Yale and Harvard. What seems to recommend them most to Hacker and Dreifus is of course precisely that they are plain Chevys in a parking lot with too many BMWs.

The argument would be more persuasive if the populism of the book didn’t scatter about accusations that seem to have little to back them up. What starts out as praise of Michael Sandel’s Harvard course on “Justice,” for instance, quickly takes a sour turn and an illogical twist. Just because these students read Aristotle, Kant, and John Rawls, Hacker and Dreifus contend, “doesn’t mean that the verbal fluency students attain will necessarily lead them to more selfless lives. On the contrary, it might just be aiding them in justifying less honorable choices.”

A moment later, they are contrasting the verbal fluency of Harvard students with the act of a workingman who jumped onto a New York subway track to save a child, which then leads to the conclusion: “Perhaps deliberation is overrated. We wonder if, had some professors been on the platform, would they have paused to ponder how John Stuart Mill might have parsed the choices?” Where’s the logic here—especially since Hacker and Dreifus have just been arguing in favor of philosophy and critical thinking?

  1. 1

    See the interesting and depressing study by Ann L. Mullen, Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), which pursues a detailed comparison of students at Yale and at Southern Connecticut State University, two miles apart. 

  2. 2

    The report is available at: www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports.html

  3. 3

    See James N. Shulman and William G. Bowen, The Game of Life : College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2001), Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2003), and Bowen’s recent disabused comments on his earlier studies in Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President (Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 109–111. 

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